Research, training facility for blind to break ground

International center to open in Baltimore

October 19, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

In a major step toward independence for the visually impaired, the National Federation of the Blind is to break ground today on the country's first international research and training center - developed and managed by blind people.

The $18 million, 170,000- square-foot National Research and Training Institute for the Blind - to be constructed next to the National Federation's headquarters on Johnson Street - will provide advanced speech and Braille technology, educational and research space, a 100-seat auditorium and a literary archive.

Locally, its impact also will be significant, officials said.

"It will provide jobs, and that is important, but it also is significant in terms of redevelopment in South Baltimore," said Charles C. Graves III, director of the city's planning department. "Hopefully, this will be a stimulus for other developments to happen in that area."

Betsy Zaborowski, director of special programs with the National Federation of the Blind, agreed. "The new building will further stabilize this whole neighborhood in South Baltimore," she said. "We have seen homeowners improving their properties as we have improved our present property. Anytime you have some capital improvements, it tends to encourage other people to improve their places, and property values go up."

The 190,000-square-foot headquarters - built as a thread mill in 1923 - faces the Barney Street rowhouse of Rich "Dickeybird" Roberg, 65.

"Since these people have been here [they moved from Des Moines, Iowa, in 1978], they've ... made improvements of every kind," Roberg said.

He said he's glad a facility will be constructed to further help blind people.

Founded in 1940, the National Federation is considered the country's largest and most influential group of blind people, with 50,000 members from 700 state and local chapters. At least half of the country's 1.1 million blind people are expected to be affected by new programs during the first 10 years the building is open.

Graves said the building - expected to be completed in June 2003 - represents the first major construction in at least a decade in that part of South Baltimore.

He said the project is an extension of "a strategy to recruit and to help expand nonprofit headquarters" in Baltimore.

Other national nonprofit groups that have moved here during the past 15 years include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Catholic Relief Services, the International Youth Foundation, Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Relief Service, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"We have provided some grants and loans to those organizations," Graves said. "We have also helped streamline the permitting process, and I think we've provided a receptive climate. We have a work force that is available, and I think that Baltimore is a very affordable place to do business."

Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation, said the new facility will tremendously help improve blind people's lives: "Usually, research and program development is done by organizations for the blind. That's why we say the of in our name is a very important word. We, the disadvantaged group, are speaking for ourselves and are now beginning to lead the field in the innovation for the blind."

The capital campaign for the new, five-story building started in June 1999 and has raised $11.5 million, said Zaborowski. "To date, we have raised funds from more than 18,000 individuals, foundations and corporations. We are continuing to solicit gifts, both nationally and here in Maryland."

The Kresge Foundation has said it will provide $800,000 toward the capital campaign if National Federation officials raise another $1.5 million by year's end, Zaborowski said.

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